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Chile Pepper
by Susan Wittig Albert
July 2, 2000

What member of the nightshade family originated in Brazil, was carried to Europe by Christopher Columbus, and is now a world-wide favorite? What herb has its very own magazine, is celebrated in hundreds of annual festivals and cookoffs, and is featured in dozens of specialty stores all across America? What herb has given relief to shingles and arthritis sufferers, helps boat owners to fend the barnacles off their bottoms, and repels bears?

Chile, of course! Every chilehead in the world knows the answers to those questions!

But those of us who aren't chileheads (the chile fanciers' name for themselves) may need some introduction to this herb--although some people might consider that to call a chile pepper an herb might be stretching things. Not so! Cayenne pepper has been used by native herbalists for centuries as a digestive aid, a diuretic, and in the treatment of poor circulation.

Peppers are perennial plants, native to South America, that are grown as annuals in North America. They are part of the nightshade family (which also includes tomatoes and potatoes) and belong to the genus Capsicum, which includes all the peppers, from the sweetest bell to the habanero from hell, as well as pimiento, paprika, piquin, and more. Botanists currently have identified twenty-seven varieties, but they're still arguing, so stay tuned. If you can grow tomatoes in your garden, you can grow most peppers with equal ease, for they require the same cultivation practices-good soil, plenty of sun, a longish growing season, and warm nights (to set fruit). You can buy transplants from the nursery, but the selection is usually limited to jalapeños and habaneros. If you'd like to try some of the more unusual varieties, it's a good idea to start from seed.

One thing that most peppers have in common is hot. The heat of a pepper is measured in Scoville Heat Units (named for its inventor, Wilbur Scoville). On this scale, now measured by liquid chromatography, peppers range from 0 for the mild bells to 350,000 and up for habaneros. The heat of peppers is responsible for both the pleasure and the pain we experience when we eat them. It results from a powerful compound called capsaicin, which causes your eyes to tear, your sweat glands to go into overdrive, and your nose to run.

How can we explain the seemingly inexplicable fact that many thousands of people choose to repeat this firey torture every day? The answer lies in the nature of capsaicin. When the compound comes in contact with nerves in your mouth, your brain quite naturally thinks you have swallowed a lighted match. So the brain secretes a large quantity of endorphins to quiet the pain caused by this burning sensation. The more fiery peppers you eat, the more endorphins your brain generates. As a side effect, this pain-killing process produces a pleasant euphoria. Many pepper eaters become addicted to this cycle of pain and pleasure, and choose to reach for the salsa bottle a couple of times a day.

The pepper's native ability to fire up the production of endorphins is also responsible for its many medicinal uses. For centuries, herbalists have rubbed red pepper into the skin to treat muscle and joint pains. The pepper functions as a counter-irritant, causing a minor burning sensation that distracts from the severe pain. Recently, however, capsaicin creams have been shown to actually reduce the pain itself, and have proved effective in the treatment of arthritis and shingles. Capsaicin also relieves headaches, particularly the severe "cluster" headaches, and appears to cut cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.

The chile pepper is a powerful irritant, and has long been used to discourage invaders. Chiles have become a popular alternative to tear gas and mace to repel muggers in the city and mean moose on the mountain trail. Mayans hurled chiles to blind their enemies, and organic gardeners spray plants with "chile tea" to keep insects away. Boat owners add chile powder to their bottom paint to discourage barnacles, and electricians suggest that a good sprinkling of cayenne might keep critters from chewing electrical wires. Obviously, the chile pepper is hot stuff, and here to stay!

© 2000 Susan Wittig Albert. All rights reserved.

Susan Wittig Albert is the author of the China Bayles Herbal Mysteries. The series features China Bayles, a former attorney who owns an herb shop. Each of the mysteries has an herbal theme and an herb-related title. The latest is Lavender Lies. You can find out more about Susan's books and read one of her free web mysteries at

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